When we think and talk about our favorite TV series, some of the most common reasons we give for being invested in a show are that the story is good and the characters are interesting. But what makes characters interesting? A simple design might be enough. Maybe the way someone looks and speaks gives them an attractive kind of edge–a tic, like the way someone might tilt his head down before he talks. More often, though, motivations are the driving forces behind truly great characters. When we see why characters do what they do, we can put ourselves in their positions. Would we do the same things? Why or why not? When Nina uncovers the letters Anton is writing to his son, Jacob, she lets him know what she’s found and says that she has no intentions of telling anyone else. Why? “I don’t know,” she tells Anton. If clear motivations are able to help us relate to characters in meaningful ways, unclear motivations–and having to fill in the blanks that the characters aren’t saying–help us understand them. Trying to answer the question for Nina gives the viewer the chance to get to know her better.
A well-written series, like The Americans, will generally have compiled plenty of information to start doing that speculation. In Nina’s case, there’s plenty to go off to get at the heart of her decision to remain silent. After being deported back to the Soviet Union as a traitor and having to throw her cellmate under the bus to a fate she wishes never to know, Nina’s state of mind is beyond turbulent. At the character’s peak of strength, somewhere around the midpoint of last season, her assuredness guided her through day-to-day operations in a confident, commanding way. Beaten down by the consequences of her actions, Nina’s found herself on the other side of that spectrum, acting out of selfishness to try to better her situation but without the benefit of knowing if what she is doing is right or not. This is probably the best explanation for why she is moved by Anton’s story after being told to extract information that can be used against him. Nina is also a human, of course, and even in spite of being immersed in a way of living that forces her to dehumanize targets, humans have a hard time escaping the connections they share. It’s actually the most reassuring part of Nina’s story this season–that there’s hope for her character’s ability to recognize the ways in which people are actually people and not just targets or victims in a larger cog that has a way of eating them up.
Paige finds herself in a similar situation of inaction as she tries as best as she can to take in the revelation of her parents being Soviet spies. There are hints of acceptance, which is ultimately what we want to see, when Elizabeth sits with Paige in the car and tells her about her own family history. The slight turn of the head and look of curiosity suggests Paige is probably closer to dealing with all of this than even she thinks she is, but she grounds herself firmly in the “I don’t know” position Nina does. Paige doesn’t know exactly why she’s not saying anything to Henry or anyone else (including her pastor last week); it can’t just be because Philip says they could go to jail. A pure betrayal, even when coming from a family member, doesn’t let the law dictate a person’s actions. If Paige wanted her parents punished, they would be. Instead, all that Paige has learned about activism, along with the mystery of her parents’ distance from her, are culminating, forcing her to breathe and think before she decides what are her strongest motivations. Is she so tied to the ideals she’s picked up from her stint with organized religion? Does her desire to make the world around her a better place override those feelings of betrayal? Will she realize that her ties to family are totally inescapable and come forward to offer to help in any way she can? It’s not unreasonable, even given the patterns of storytelling on television, that any of these options is off the table. And just as Nina sits on her own information, Paige bides time as the third season of The Americans reaches it climax.
– Walter Taffet’s words to Gaad that sent him into a machine-kicking rage have clearly gotten under Gaad’s skin. He finds himself pouring over the details of every little thing that could have been said in his office that ought to have been said in the FBI’s bunker.
– There may not be many more envelopes for Elizabeth from her mother. The natural replacement, of course, is for Paige to become closer to Elizabeth, who would end up being the same kind of fighting type that Elizabeth describes her own mother to be.
– Maurice and Lisa are blackmailing Elizabeth for a lot of money, which is definitely going to end well for Maurice. It’s always nice to have a villain who is just a villain and not someone with whom we’re supposed to sympathize.
– Philip teaches Martha how to effectively work around intense interview questions. Apparently, you just look at the person’s nose when answering. Advice for your next job interview.
– “How can I believe anything you say?”
– “One of these times, I’m going to need a yes.”
– Of the many post-mission scenes in which either Philip or Elizabeth has had to do some dirty work, Elizabeth coming home after her time with the hotel manager is easily one of my favorites. Her facial expressions show everything that’s upsetting her–one of the rare times in which she hasn’t had total control. We’ve seen Philip come home feeling guilt from the necessary actions he’s had to take; this is one of the memorable times Elizabeth has been affected by the mission. Again, it’s one of those strangely poignant scenes whose difficulty comes from liking both of these characters so much.
[Photo via FX]